This is one of those horrid diseases of yesteryear. At one time a terrible killer in the community, it is now rarely seen. However, cases do pop up from time to time, but the disease is totally preventable and these should never take place.

The disease is produced by an organism called Corynebacterium diphtheriae. It is readily sneezed or coughed around from the throat of a patient or a carrier of the disease. The organism tends to resist drying, so may land on articles belonging to others and be transferred in this simple manner.

The usual starting point is a mild sore throat, plus a moderate fever anywhere from 38.5 to 39.0°C (101 to 102°F). Very quickly the patient shows signs of toxicity, especially prostration. A dirty grey-green layer of material forms on the tonsils and the sides and back of the throat. There may be a nasal discharge, which is extremely infectious. The voice may become hoarse and a croupy cough develop. This is a sinister sign. Swelling in the internal respiratory tract occurs, toxins are absorbed by the system, and very soon the child becomes extremely ill.

Serious and sinister complications may occur. The powerful toxins are rapidly spread throughout the system and may adversely affect the heart, the nerves (especially those involving the eyes), the pharynx and the breathing apparatus. Muscle groups may also be affected, and this may lead to partial paralysis. Pneumonia is also a serious complication.


Although not often seen in Australia (or in most Western countries) these days, diphtheria still occurs in sporadic cases which usually make headline news. However, the only reason why its incidence is low is because of the massive immunization campaigns that have been carried on for many years. Unless a high proportion of the infant population is continually immunized, then the disease could readily become re-established as a major killer of children.

Active immunization is recommended to start at the age of two months in Australian babies. This comes with the full backing of all state governments, as well as all doctors throughout the land. (Refer to the section on immunization earlier in this chapter for details. Parents (especially parents of a new baby) are urged to follow the advice offered.)

Diphtheria is a totally preventable disease, and it is up to parents to use their common sense in arranging immunization. Persons migrating to Australia from other countries, who may not have had their children immunized, are urged to do so without further delay. See your own family doctor, or visit the local hospital. Baby health clinics can also give you full advice.

Treatment of diphtheria requires hospitalization. Prompt medical attention, either from your own doctor or from the hospital, will help make the diagnosis, and after this skilled treatment by persons expert in the field is essential. The mortality rate is very high. The longer cases are left, the more perilous the outcome.


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